reviews

Kanye West: 808s and Heartbreak - Mojo

November 2008

 

Ah, the perils of the playback. This record wasn't made available to reviewers properly, due partly to Kanye still working on it at the time Mojo went to press. As a result I didn't hear the whole thing (the track with Lil' Wayne wasn't on the disc I went in to the label's office to hear), didn't hear it in the right order, and heard it in an unfinished state. Hence all the stuff about long instrumental codas and whatnot - which seemed to have disappeared by the time the record was released, and the review had printed. Oh well. I'm not going to change it now - this was what I felt and thought about what I heard, and that's all you can do when you're writing about music, really. 

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Kanye West
****
808s and Heartbreak

ROC-A-FELLA

Following the sudden death of his mother and the end of a relationship, Kanye West, Chicago's king of the hip hop nerds, threw himself into his music. He headed to Hawaii to work on tracks for Jay-Z, and while there, he quickly knocked out this startling, brave-verging-on-foolhardy, deeply personal yet potentially career-altering LP.

Love Lockdown, the abstruse first single, written and recorded in a matter of days before it was released online and charted in September, offered clues. It's desolate, distant, emotionally eviscerated, West singing – not rapping – over a skeletal electronic ghost of the blues.

At first, 808s and Heartbreak sounds like a record made in a hurry; a sketch of an album, not the finished article.  Heartless is ordinary. Streetlights' verses all have the same words. Some tracks – the unsettling, sonar-punctuated throb of Say You Will, or Bad News, a second cousin of Gnarls Barkley's Who's Gonna Save My Soul – seem half-written, the songs petering out before extended instrumental codas double their running times.

The opening Welcome to Heartbreak confuses further. West, rapping for the only time on the record, drapes his words over portentous cellos and martial drums; he talks about a figure dislocated by fame or success who "look[s] back on my life and my life gone." It seems to set up an LP entirely different from the one that follows, where love songs laced with alienation and regret are insinuated into tracks stuck in a timewarp (Paranoid – which features backing vocals from West's latest protegee, British singer-songwriter Ben Hudson of Mr Hudson & The Library – begins like a slowed-down Kids in America and comes replete with Van Halen Jump-style keyboard stabs).

But there is method in his incipient madness. Welcome to Heartbreak finds its mirror in the remarkable drunken lope of Amazing, where West's bug-eyed declamations – "I'm a monster, I'm a killer" – give way to lines that balance the worries of the opening track: "I know this world is changin'," he half-sings, half-scats; "Never gave in, never gave up/I'm the only thing I'm afraid of." Those codas suddenly become ruminations; the empty spaces deliberate rather than lazy.

It's indulgent, and West is relying on his fans sharing both his keenness to pursue a questing muse, and his love affair with autotuned vocals and '80s electronica. But there is a bravery about 808s and Heartbreak that makes it compelling, and after the compromises of Graduation, it feels honest. Time will tell whether this is a one-off while West gets loss out of his system, or a transfigurative moment as he continues to morph into a completely new kind of pop star. Regardless, it is his most fascinating, and bewildering, record to date.

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